Funding for 911 could disappear

In San Francisco, phone bills include a monthly fee to pay for 911 emergency communications that this fiscal year generated $43 million.

That funding source, however, is now in legal jeopardy since a state appeals court struck down a similar fee in nearby Union City.

Today, the Board of Supervisorsis scheduled to meet in closed session with the city attorney to discuss the legal ruling, as The City could face a lawsuit about its 911 fee.

At the end of April, the California First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against Union City’s 911 fee and said the local tax, in accordance with a 1996 state ballot initiative, required voter approval.

San Francisco’s fee — set at $2.75 per month — covers the cost of about 85 percent of The City’s emergency communications system, according to Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda.

City officials said there is no other funding source currently identified to replace the fee. In legal documents submitted for the Union City case, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera argued The City’s 911 service would “likely deteriorate and people may die.”

The possibility of losing millions of dollars also comes as San Francisco faces a projected $338 million budget deficit for next fiscal year.

“If the source of funding were to go away, we would have to look for another source, possibly the operating budget or other sources,” said Lauran Adleman, a spokeswoman for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

Union City Manager Larry Cheeves said that he will recommend his City Council vote May 13 to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Union City has 40 days to file an appeal and the court has 120 days to decide whether to hear the case, he said.

“We are closely monitoring the situation in Union City and will continue to ensure that all San Franciscans who need them will benefit from 911 services,” said Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Union City’s fee was challenged in court by several individuals as well as three wireless phone companies — AT&T, Cingular and Verizon.

The appeals court said Union City’s levy is a tax, not a user fee, because all customers received the charge, even if they did not call 911.

Other cities in California impose similar charges for 911 services, including San Jose, Santa Cruz and Stockton.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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